A Beginning, a Middle and an End

If you don’t know where that comes from, read Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle was a great marine biologist who had an eye for the middle of anything. He was, as we Platonists know, not so great at epistemology, but he was a diligent observer and not altogether misleading in his remarks. He observed that dramatic works need a beginning, a middle and an end. This unilluminating observation turns out to be very necessary. It is good to start with the obvious before proceeding, and you can often count on Aristotle at least for the obvious.

I say it because it was brought to my attention in studying homiletic theory that there are at least three frames of reference for considering a sermon: the theological, the rhetorical and the poetical. In mainline circles, the theological is not always considered. The poetics, in the sense of the drama of your approach, a sophisticated structure, is, from what I gathered at Princeton, mainly in view. They were exceeding scornful of a sermon approach that was not carefully considered (had art) and demonstrated that the preacher understood how what he was saying came across. Being inconsiderate of your audience is, after all, impolite. What was interesting there was my old-school teacher’s insistence on the neglected theological frame of reference.

In present circles, that the sermon should have artistic considerations . . . how would that be received? I get the idea that the main thing is to be doing the right thing, not to be fussing about how it comes across. It is approached as music styles are: who cares, as long as the words are right. Yet there is not exactly an indifference to how things comes across; there is a strict pattern: obtrude your outline and always, always, always explicitly state how the passage proclaims points to Christ. What if an outline is not really meant to guide the hearer, but to give coherence to the sermon?  One is met with incomprehension. What kind of weirdo doesn’t understand that stating the points of your outline is a vital component of a sermon and that by definition a sermon will always end in the same predictable way because that is theologically required? If we were talking about food, we would be talking about boiled potatoes, boiled meat and boiled vegetables, always. It is as if the main thing is to boil and to include potatoes, meat and vegetables because that’s proper nourishment. It will nourish, but what are you communicating about nourishment if you only do that?

Some are good boilers, I will say, and over time acquire a sense of seasoning, and while they never get into frying, baking, grilling, or roasting, they do pretty good boiled stuff. But they are stuck on boiling. Do they wonder what it is like from the pew? I sit there wondering, among all the things preachers are interested in and pursue in their lives besides their faithful study of Scripture, are they interested in being interesting? I know what they hear from the pew: that it is good because one is hearing good things. We do not hear bad things or heresy, only sound things. One is grateful and should be grateful that one can eat, that there is food, that it nourishes, but one struggles to remain grateful and wonders about the benefits of fasting, or cookbooks, or why in other times and places nourishment has been talked of with more relish than one can seem to summon up. Is the problem with one?

I think narrative, because a narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end, ends up most easily satisfying that poetic frame of reference. And because the Holy Ghost is not ignorant of how things come across, there are things built into Scripture’s texts that help this consideration from fading, even when not explicitly attended. But what about saying good things in a way that is uninteresting, that communicates that they are uninteresting however good, and if you have trouble attending to them the problem is something else wrong with you? Can it be that at the heart of the confusion is that the theological frame of reference is the only real one in view, and what properly belongs to the poetic frame of reference is not explicitly and carefully considered? Interestingness can lead to the distraction that is entertainment; that is true. Do not throw out the theological frame of reference. And, all the more reason to think seriously and philosophically about what interestingness is! Speaking of which, an interesting conversation I had recently included the suggestion that perhaps the theological frame of reference has been narrowed to the scope of one sermon, rather than considering more widely the aim of preaching over time. So I wonder if perhaps the individual sermon is more the proper object of a dramatic, an artistic consideration, and the preaching over the years perhaps is the proper object of theological scrutiny. Each has a different scope that changes what is the beginning, the middle and the end.

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